Daytona 500's blazing start gives NASCAR hopes for red-hot season

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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Sprint Cup update

Tony Stewart has only five finishes outside the top 15 in 20 starts at Phoenix.

Denny Hamlin's fourth-place finish was his highest ever at Daytona. He hadn't been better than 17th in six previous Daytona 500s.

Matt Kenseth's 22nd Sprint Cup victory tied him with Terry Labonte for 29th all-time.

Brendan Gaughan returns to Sprint Cup action this weekend, making the first of four starts for Richard Childress Racing.

Nationwide update

Four of the top five drivers in the points standings are 23 or younger. Second-place Cole Whitt is 20, third-place Austin Dillon is 21, fourth-place Tayler Malsam is 23, and fifth-place Trevor Bayne is 21. Bayne has the most experience of the young crew at Phoenix, with five series starts.

Defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is ninth in the points standings after his last-lap accident at Daytona left him with a 19th-place finish.

Defending race winner Kyle Busch will drive his own Kyle Busch Motorsports car this year. He won the race last year in a Joe Gibbs Racing car.

Camping World Truck update

John King is still getting used to the idea that he won at Daytona. The 23-year-old, making only his eighth series start and never having finished better than 15th, said, "I'm a rookie. This is unreal."

Justin Lofton's third-place finish last week matched his career best, and Chris Fontaine and Clay Greenfield got their first top-10s.

4Consecutive top-5s at Phoenix International Speedway for Ryan Newman. He got a win and a second-place finish in 2010 and a pair of fifth-place finishes in 2011.

Quotable

"It seems like we have been here for a month. Just a lot of strange things happening, to tell you the truth. But I'm happy to get in the plane and head home."

Kevin Harvick, on the time in Daytona

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The Daytona 500 still has racing veterans shaking their heads, thanks to 36 hours of a rain delay that prompted the race to start in prime time on Monday night and then featured a freak accident that left a fuel spill burning on the track.

"It was amazing. We have never seen anything like that," driver Aric Almirola said.

And to think, that was only the first race of the year.

The Sprint Cup series is only getting started. The next stop is Sunday in Phoenix, then it's on to Las Vegas. In six weeks, the series will be in Fort Worth for the Mobile Samsung 500, a Saturday night race that will be the next time the cars run under the lights.

"Everybody goes to Daytona thinking about the big prize, which is the trophy," driver Kurt Busch said.

But now everybody is racing for position, looking for one of the 12 "playoff" spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In the minds of many of the drivers, the 36-race grind to the week before Thanksgiving actually begins now.

"You want to have the win at Daytona and then you just deal with the points, no matter where you end up," Busch said. "Phoenix is the first race of the year where you are into a regular sequence of Friday practice, Saturday qualifying and Sunday race."

Sunday's 500K race in Phoenix has a chance to have more first-time NASCAR viewers, thanks to the attention the sport got Monday night.

Juan Pablo Montoya's slide into a dryer containing 200 gallons of jet fuel caused an explosion that left the track on fire. The result was a two-hour delay that left track workers scrambling to make repairs.

They put out the fire, lifted the dryer and its truck off the track, scrubbed the residue with Tide -- giving Fox's national television audience a nice tight shot of the familiar orange and yellow logo on the detergent boxes sitting on the track -- then patched up the asphalt.

"It was really just a lot of speedy dry and whatever they washed it with and one little bump," driver Kevin Harvick said. "They did a good job fixing it. You couldn't even tell."

For NASCAR's first weeknight prime time Sprint Cup race, the combination of buildup, racing accidents, explosions and night-owl finish could not have bought more publicity.

"When you watch all the movies and stuff blows up and people run into cars, I always thought that was just Hollywood. But I guess it's not," race winner Matt Kenseth said. "I guess stuff does blow up when you run into something hot with 200 gallons of fuel in it."

For some drivers, it was a chance to introduce themselves to a new audience.

Brad Keselowski took advantage of it with his cellphone. He tweeted pictures of the fire and gained more than 100,000 followers in the hours after the accident.

He wasn't the only one tweeting. Users across the country chipped in: "First-time NASCAR viewers, this is not normal." "First driver to Phoenix wins." "At least Bud Selig doesn't make third base blow up in flames!" "Check Montoya's phone. Was he texting?"

Nobody expected Keselowski, 28, to have his cellphone with him.

It even caught NASCAR by surprise. The rules don't say anything about a cellphone in the car during competition or tweeting or anything like that.

NASCAR issued a statement: "NASCAR will not penalize Brad Keselowski for his use of Twitter during last night's Daytona 500. Nothing we've seen from Keselowski violates any current rules pertaining to the use of social media during races. As such, he won't be penalized. We encourage our drivers to use social media to express themselves as long as they do so without risking their safety or that of others."

The race left the Sprint Cup standings in a mess, too.

Four "Chase" drivers from last year were 27th or worse. Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson was 42nd, and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon was 40th. They had never been 40th or worse in the same race.

"I'm just really, really bummed to start the season this way," Johnson said. " ... we didn't get to complete 2 1/2 miles of green flag racing."Things got worse for Johnson's team Wednesday. A 25-point NASCAR penalty after a failed inspection Feb. 17 dropped him to 43rd, pending an appeal.

Jumbled standings. Tweets. Fire.

And to think, the season is one race old.

Carlos Mendez

817-390-7760

Twitter @calexmendez

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